Oxford scholars receive award for ‘Best Paper’ at XVI World Water Congress.

Geography DPhil student, Kevin Wheeler collects award for Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam research.

Water experts from around the world gathered in Cancun from May 29 to June 3 for the International Water Resources Association’s XVI World Water Congress. Delegates present included a number of Oxford scholars and alumni, including Kevin Wheeler, a current DPhil student at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, and alumnus of the Water Science, Policy and Management MSc (2012-2013) programme.

Kevin contributed to a special session exploring perspectives on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the future of water resources management and development in the Eastern Nile Basin, presenting work from his doctoral research. Later, a paper based on this research, ‘Cooperative filling approaches for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’, received the award for ‘Best Paper’ published in the IWRA’s journal Water International in 2016.

The research is the result of a collaboration with a number of regional experts, guided by Kevin’s Oxford supervisors, Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute, and Dr Simon Dadson, Associate Professor in Physical Geography at School of Geography and Environment.

The award is a great achievement and recognition of the significant contribution the research has made to the policy discourse around Nile River Basin governance.

You can find out more about the research in this article posted on the Oxford Water Network website last year. Alternatively, the paper is available open Access via Water International.

Reference: Wheeler, K. G., Basheer, M., Mekonnen, Z. T., Eltoum, S.O., Mersha, A., Abdo, G. M., Zagona, E.A., Hall, J.W., Dadson, S.J. (2016) Cooperative filling approaches for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Water International

Detecting water in space and why it matters

Miguel Pereira Santaella, Research Associate at the Oxford University Department of Physics, discusses his newly published work observing never before seen water transitions in space. He breaks down how the discovery will help scientists to answer big planetary questions and build a more accurate understanding of the universe.

From clouds to rivers, and glaciers to oceans, water is everywhere on Earth. What’s less well-known, though, is how abundant the molecule is in space.

Unlike on Earth, most of the water in space takes either the form of vapour or forms ice mantles stuck to interstellar dust grains. This is because the extremely low density of interstellar space – which is trillions of times lower than air, prevents the formation of liquid water. The birth of star formations can tell us about how the Universe behaves. But, since the only way to study them in such dust obscured environments is through the infrared light, detecting water transitions capable of detecting this light, is of vital importance.

Water molecules experience fluctuating quantum energy levels. This activity allows us to observe them and is known as a water transition. The term refers to the best point for scientific observation, which is the exact wavelength at which water molecules go from one quantum state to another, emitting light and increasing their visibility as they do so.

The majority of these transitions are not very energetic so they appear in the far-infrared and sub-millimetre ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum, with tiny wavelengths (ranging from 50 μm and 1000 μm (1 mm)). Observing these water transitions from the ground is very difficult because the thick vapour in Earth’s atmosphere almost completely blocks the emission from view.

Improvements in technology and the development of super telescopes offer an increasing gateway to the universe, and planetary insights are moving at rapid pace. We can now detect water transitions in ways that we just could not before. They are best seen from telescopic observatories situated at high-altitude, in extremely dry sites. Such as, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), which is located in the Atacama desert (Chile) at 5000 m above sea level.

In our study published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, we used ALMA and detected the (670 μm) water transition in space, for the first time. The molecules were spotted in a nearby spiral galaxy (160 million light years away) at a point where the Universe is vastly expanded, and the atmosphere is therefore at its most transparent (red-shifted at 676 μm).

The water vapour emission in this galaxy originates at its core, in its nucleus, where most star formation takes place. To give you an idea of how enormous this galaxy is, the nucleus contains an equivalent amount of water 30 trillion times that of Earth’s oceans combined, and has a diameter 15 million times the distance from Earth to the Sun.

So what sets this water transition apart from others observed in the past? Our analysis revealed that these water molecules intensify their rate of emission when they come into contact with infrared light photons. This increase in activity makes it easier for scientists to observe them. Water molecules are most attracted to photons with specific wavelengths of 79 and 132 μm, which, when absorbed, strengthen the transition’s outline, therefore increasing its visibility. For this reason, this specific water transition has the ability to show us the intensity of the infrared light in the nucleus of galaxies, at spatial scales much smaller than those allowed by direct infrared observations.

Infrared light is produced during events like the growth of supermassive black holes or extreme bursts of star-formation. These events usually occur in extremely dust obscured environments where the optical light is almost completely absorbed by dust grains. The energy absorbed by the grains increases their temperature and they begin to emit thermal radiation in the infrared. Capturing these events can tell us a great deal about how the Universe behaves, so detecting water transitions that can capture this infrared light, is vital.

Moving forward we plan to observe this water transition in more galaxies where dust blocks all the optical light. This will reveal what hides behind these dust screens and help us to understand how galaxies evolve from star-forming spirals, like the Milky Way, to dead elliptical galaxies where no new stars are formed.

A version of this article was originally posted on the Oxford Science Blog.

Strategic drought risk management – 8 golden rules

New research led by the Environmental Change Institute’s Paul Sayers provides guidance for water managers in a changing climate.

Major droughts are ever-present threat: one set to increase with climate change and rising water-demand. Historically droughts have been responded to ‘as they happen’ leading to incremental shifts in approach as lessons are learnt. Given the significance of the challenge now faced, this heuristic approach is no longer fit-for-purpose and a new approach is required.

One such approach is outlined in a new paper, recently published in the International Journal of River Basin Management, entitled ‘Strategic drought risk management: eight ‘golden rules’ to guide a sound approach’. The research led by Paul Sayers, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Environmental Change Institute, and conducted in collaboration with colleagues from WWF-UK and China and General Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Planning and Design at the China’s Ministry of Water Resources, draws from a series of expert workshops, international case studies and analysis of past droughts, to develop a framework for Strategic Drought Risk Management (SDRM).

The framework encourages a focus on long-term outcomes (for people, ecosystems and economies) and views drought as a water-related risk, not simply a hazard. SDRM is presented as a multi-scale endeavour, providing both local and regional solutions whilst addressing short and long-term challenges. It seeks to implement a diverse portfolio of measures during non-drought conditions as well in the run-up to, during and after a drought event whist recognising the critical interdependences between human systems and freshwater ecosystems.

The paper concludes by presenting eight ‘Golden Rules’ to guide a sound approach to successful SDRM, namely to:

1. Set multiple goals and objectives that promote positive long-term outcomes for society;
2. Encourage stakeholders from a variety of different sectors and realms to participate;
3. Implement a portfolio of measures to transition towards a drought resilient society;
4. Utilize limited resources efficiently and fairly to reduce risk and maximize opportunities;
5. Assess whole system behaviour and associated risks and uncertainties over the short- and long-term;
6. Communicate risks (and associated uncertainties) effectively and widely;
7. Understand inherent controversies and trade-offs;
8. Embed a continuous process of review and adaptation;

Golden rules for Strategic Drought Risk Management.

You can find our more about these 8 rules and the research here. For more information about Paul and his research, click here.


Paul B Sayers, Li Yuanyuan, Catherine Moncrieff, Li Jianqiang, David Tickner, Lei Gang & Robert Speed (2017) Strategic drought risk management: eight ‘golden rules’ to guide a sound approach, International Journal of River Basin Management, 15:2, 239-255, DOI: 10.1080/15715124.2017.1280812 

What about the people? Unlocking the key to socially sustainable and resilient communities

Oxford University anthropologist, Cathy Baldwin, and the World Resources Institute’s Robin King, summarise findings from their new report exploring how built environments shape community resilience.

Children play in flood waters after torrential rains in Kampung Melayu, Jakarta. Photo by Kate Lamb, Freelance journalist

Rapid urbanization, economic growth and climate change are putting increasing pressure on urban communities around the world. While strong physical structures are important, social relationships play a key role in determining urban communities’ resilience during adverse weather events.

Community resilience is influenced by the strength of neighborhood social networks and cohesion, two features that determine a community’s social sustainability (its viability, health and functioning). Interacting, getting along—with or in spite of social or ethnic differences—and collaborating on group initiatives help sustain communities in ordinary times and respond resiliently during times of crisis. These social factors can improve residents’ health, well-being, daily quality of life and collective capacity to cope with, and adapt to, disasters.

Built environments that promote social interaction can contribute to socially sustainable, resilient communities. City policy makers, planners and designers can adopt “socially-aware planning:” the intention to promote positive social interaction and social impacts through the mindful planning, designing, construction and management of cities.

Urban development projects and built structures, such as housing, public spaces and transit stops, can influence people to think and behave in ways that are indicative of strong networks and cohesion. Psychologists label these behaviors, thoughts and feelings “pro-community,” meaning that they benefit their communities. An action as simple as greeting neighbors regularly means that during a crisis, the lines of communication are already open. A new report—What about the people? The socially sustainable, resilient community and urban development by Cathy Baldwin and Robin King— uses case studies to explore how built environments influence pro-community behaviors, thoughts and feelings, evaluating their impact on community resilience. We discuss three here:

1. Neighborhood Co-Design Projects Foster Socially Sustainable Communities

Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Stalls beside Khayelitsha Metrorail station. Photo by Stokperdjie

Two crucial elements—urban form and community participation in urban development—have the greatest influence on community behavior, thoughts and feelings.

In Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town, South Africa, the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading Programme (VPUU), has transformed its previously rundown and dangerous streets into a safer, vibrant and more attractive place. Through a survey and interactive events, residents and professionals co-identified crime-related problems, community needs and organizational patterns in urban spaces. To deter crime in these locations, residents helped implement new features, including paved pedestrian walkways and street lighting, providing “safe routes” through dense informal settlements. These new features made the community safer. In fact, the murder rate dropped by 39 percent between 2003 and 2010, the highest in a low-income community. Additional positive social impacts include employment opportunities for residents and trauma counselling for women. These solutions foster positive community behaviors such as collaboration and feelings of pride and safety.

2. Communities Experience Measurable Positive Social and Psychological Effects

Residents restore neighborhood squares in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Jan Semenza

While the Khayelitsha project provided distinctive social and economic benefits, a co-design project in Portland, Oregon, identified quantifiable clinical health benefits. The community conceived, designed, permitted and constructed three neighborhood pedestrianized squares with the objectives of improving participants’ social networks and mental wellbeing. With support from urban development professionals, residents implemented features such as community-designed street murals, benches, planter boxes, information kiosks with bulletin boards and hanging gardens. Psychologists systematically surveyed 265 participants before and after the intervention within a two-block radius of the sites. They measured mental health, sense of community, community capacity and social networks and recorded improvements seen through community empowerment, participation and collective action.

3. Built Environments Influence Community Behavior Before and During Disasters

In many informal settlements, such as in Surat, India, community resilience is inhibited by poverty, low-quality built structures and exclusion from city government disaster planning. Including these communities in neighborhood management is the most immediate factor to address.

Where residents have strong networks but are vulnerable to, for example, flooding, resettlement requires a nuanced understanding of the social relationships and organizational strategies that enable resilience. In Jakarta, Indonesia, the diverse residents of riverside neighborhoods (kampungs) have strong social networks and cohesion, partially due to the close proximity of low-quality housing, and formal organizations that enforce participation in neighborhood cleaning (kerja bakti) and security systems (ronda).

The kampung of Manggarai, Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Mario Wilhelm

During floods, residents use their informal communications networks as a warning system, pooling resources and participating in clean-up activities. Despite attempted relocation, some kampung residents may return to their original dwellings if their networks and support systems are not also transferred. Adequate housing is an urgent priority, but, before relocating populations, planners must research the spatial and organizational features of neighborhoods to maintain social communities.

Designing for Social Networks and Cohesion Is the Crux of Community Resilience

By examining urban development and disasters across 12 countries, the report reveals the behaviors and feelings that stem from social networks and cohesion, emerge under the influence of urban form and community participation and are common to communities that are both socially sustainable and resilient:

  • Feeling connected and emotionally attached to neighborhood and community
  • Feeling safe and secure
  • Monitoring the neighborhood
  • Residing long-term
  • Regularly interacting with neighbors and participating in events
  • Being socially cohesive
  • Having community spirit
  • Having a voice and influence in neighborhood planning and governance

Projects involved different creative steps to influence these behaviors, which urban planners can tap into for implementing socially-aware planning:

  1. Incorporate clear social objectives into planning
  2. Conduct social research to understand the local interpretation of the urban landscape, and document communities’ social needs and strengths
  3. Employ democratic and inclusive community engagement and participation
  4. Match the evidence of communities’ needs and strengths with sensitive planning and design decisions
  5. Allow communities to co-design, implement, construct and manage spaces and infrastructure
  6. Create off-shoot community and economic development opportunities
  7. Include communities in ongoing monitoring and evaluation, ensure social objectives are honored and generate future learning

Government sustainability and resilience plans tend to prioritize the “hardware” of cities, but change is needed. Adopting the socially-aware planning process will make cities more robust and responsive to the needs of their residents. The report offers a global perspective and evidence from 12 countries to show its’ relevance and applicability everywhere. As adverse weather events increase, people, as well as the planet, must be protected.

Cathy Baldwin is an applied anthropologist and consultant specialising in the social, cultural, health and well-being aspects of urban development, planning and infrastructure, energy production, environmental management, and adaptation to climate change. She is Research Associate at Oxford University’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and Visiting Research Academic at the Faculty of Technology, Design and Environment, Oxford Brookes University.

The report can be downloaded from Oxford Brookes University website.

This blog was originally posted on TheCityFix, an online resource for learning about the latest in urban sustainability, produced by WRI’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, a program of the World Resources Institute.

Conceptualizing Chinese engagement in South-East Asian dam projects: evidence from Myanmar’s Salween River

New study by Julian Kirchherr, based on his doctoral research conducted at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, explores Burmese dam development.

A major boom in dam construction is underway in Myanmar, with the Burmese government planning up to build up to 45 dams in the near future. However, to date, these projects have been subject to limited scholarly research. One academic, who has worked redress this balance is Julian Kirchherr, Assistant Professor at Utrecht University’s Faculty of Geosciences and recent DPhil graduate from Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.

The International Journal of Water Resources Development, recently published the latest paper from Kirchherr’s doctoral research. This work examines the motivations behind seven dams to be built on Myanmar’s Salween River, one of which, the Mong Ton Dam project, would be the largest dam in mainland Southeast Asia and the 6th largest dam worldwide if completed.

Previous scholarly work has described these dams as Chinese-led initiatives, offering limited side benefit to Myanmar – extractive endeavors designed to “suck resources (or is it blood?)” from Myanmar (Lamb and Nga Dao, 2015).

However, Kirchherr argues that most of the projects are actually Thai-led. He bases his argument on more than 70 interviews with dam developers, government officials, project-affected communities and NGOs in the region which he visited between 2015 and 2016.

“The interviews showed that the Thai government initiated most of these projects, hoping to export the dams’ electricity to Thailand. No dams can be built in Thailand these days due to the sweeping resistance of civil society”, Kirchherr explains. Indeed, 4 of the 7 Burmese dam projects feature electricity exports to Thailand, according to this research; 90% of the Mong Ton Dam’s electricity would be exported to Thailand.

He further argues that the Chinese were engaged by Thai players in order to make use of their significant expertise in mega-dam construction.

“The Chinese have accumulated significant experience over the years – they have constructed half of the world’s 45,000 large dams”, Kirchherr argues. “Mega-projects such as the Mong Ton Dam can only be carried out by Chinese players: Thai players lack the relevant experience.”

“Scholars tend to think that any dam project with Chinese involvement must also be a Chinese-led one”, says Kirchherr, ‘this is not the case.’

Kirchherr hopes that the work will encourage scholars to consider Chinese engagement in dam projects overseas on a case-by-case basis:

‘There is growing evidence that Chinese dam developers often act solely as contractors in large overseas dam projects, and not lead the overall development effort”.